My daughter is now in first year in an Ontario university, and I am learning from a different perspective about rigidity in university expectations of writing. She is distressed that comments on her essays so far (all from TAs) have been quite formulaic. For instance, "you must tie each of your paragraphs explicitly to your thesis statement". I happen to have read the paper as it was submitted, and it had a very clear thread of connection; it didn't, however, have sentences that said "The second aspect of the argument I am making is...".
I don't know if this is just a matter of insecure TAs using (or having been given) criteria that are easy to use, but I note that the effect is that my articulate and sometimes even eloquent daughter is threatening to cripple her prose with such artificial splints just to score higher on some inflexible rubric.
It is a reminder to me that assessing work on criteria related to whether or not it achieves its purpose is much harder than simply matching it against criteria that imply there is only one way (and that an unimaginative one) to achieve the purpose. That said, I will agree with Sandy about the (short-lived) usefulness of formulaic structures. Barre exercises are useful, even essential, to the dancer, but they aren't the dance. Academic writing (and not only by novices) seems to me more and more to approximate the former rather than the latter.
That's tonight's rant!
Susan Drain, PhD
Department of English
Mount Saint Vincent University
Halifax, NS Canada B3M 2J6
902 457 6220
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